Do good, feel good: What is brand activism?

I’ve been involved in brand activism for years. When I worked for United Ways years ago, companies joined volunteer days that we organized. Employees worked together to help local nonprofits. Those days still exist today and are an excellent way for companies to bond, be present in their communities, and help people in need.

Today, I work for a company that helps brands find out from their customers and employees what social causes they care about by engaging with them and asking questions.

There's an expectation that the companies that are seeking their dollars should share their values.

With so much going on in the world, I wanted to take the opportunity to dive into the state of brand activism today and share tips on how companies can get involved.

In this article, I discuss the following:

What is brand activism?

Brand activism means a company (a brand) ties its business activity to a social cause. Sometimes it’s also referred to as being socially active or social responsibility.

For example, many events added social responsibility components like collecting donations, a volunteer activity for attendees, or something similar before the pandemic.

Voxpopme and Zappi donated to nonprofits for every registration at the Virtual Insight Summit. The project was announced as follows:

Together we can make meaningful change within the research community surrounding the important topic of diversity, equity and inclusion! Your registration donates $1 to each of our community partners: Colour of Research (CORe) and Insights in Color. Register today and spread the word!

Gilad Barash, vice president of analytics at Dstillery, said conscious capitalism is another term on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” Dstillery is a data science company that creates audiences for market researchers based on digital signals.

“As a consumer, I’m being more aware of where I spend my money,” said Jenn Mancusi, chief revenue officer at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk.” “It’s not just about the product or the price. It’s more about the brand. The standards are a lot higher than what they used to be.”

Oversimplified brand activism means companies use their resources to help make the world a better place.

How do you do brand activism?

Today, brand activism can come in several ways:

  • Participation in events like the United Way one.
  • Donations to charitable causes.
  • The public stands on issues affecting our communities. This could come in articles, livestreams/podcasts, and ads, for example.
  • Tying in a product launch to a social issue.
  • Hiring diverse team members and vendors/partners.

Some companies choose not to do anything but depending on the severity of the issue in the community, that might not be a good strategy.

“Some consumers will see that as being complicit,” Gilad said. “Silence is no longer a refuge.”

Years ago, we had rules in communications: We get involved in this but not that. For some topics, that’s fine, but when it comes to difficult or dangerous situations that affect many people, brands likely have to consider taking a stand today.

Is doing brand activism a good thing?

Let’s say it can affect business.

“There’s an expectation that the companies seeking their dollars should share their values,” said Gilad. “They want to see some involvement from the brands they love in the things they care about.”

"The first rule of thumb in social activism is to mean it."

Sticking with the United Way example, I know that some people choose the banks that participated in campaigns because they stood for making the community better.

Author and marketing expert Mark Schaefer said on “Reel Talk” that this is also where brands should think about their why. Why do they exist, what are they trying to accomplish and what do they stand for? Don’t insert your brand’s why into marketing at every opportunity, but use it to make decisions in your brand activities, he said.

Why is brand activism essential, and why now?

Firstly, socially responsible brands can make our communities better. That can also lead to closer relationships with our customers. It’s harder to drop a brand if it also stands for what I stand for.

Gilad calls it a “social context” between consumers and brands. Gilad said that when values align, consumers are more likely to spend more.

In part, brand activism is top of mind now because it’s easier to connect with brands for consumers. They can easily tweet at their favorite brand, see what they post (or do not post), and send their feedback through video survey platforms.

“There’s just a lot more visibility,” Gilad said. “There’s more information on how brands spend their money and who they contribute politically. It’s become a bigger issue now, especially with all the things going on.”

Read next: How to spot and use new trends with consumer insights

So there’s an actual business reason why brand activism matters.

“Especially today when we are trying to engage with younger audiences,” Gilad said. “Your Gen Zs and your Millennials. They care about these things. So that’s the way to garner more interest.”

Read next: How to get feedback from younger consumers

The role of transformative brands

“To succeed, brands must transform people and the world they live in,” said Emmanuel Probst, Senior Vice President – Brand Health Tracking, at Ipsos, and author of “Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation.” “They must make a lasting impact on us and our local community and the world at large.” 

Emmanuel said being a transformative brand makes a difference, drives loyalty, and increases revenue.

Transformative brands have a brand purpose, but it’s not just about claiming that brand purpose. It’s also about implementing it, Emmanuel said.

“We are just overwhelmed with brands and alternatives in all categories,” he said, explaining why being transformative is essential. ”

"All brands can make an impact on the world around us."

In essence, brands need to stand out, and becoming a transformative brand helps them with just that, Emmanuel explained.

How do you know what customers and employees care about?

“What are some of the different ways to learn what is important to those buyers?” asked Jenn.

“The good news is they are happy to tell you,” Gilad said.

Younger consumers are already:

  • sharing pictures on social media
  • tagging brands with their thoughts
  • giving feedback

“It’s a matter of listening,” Gilad said.

You can combine behavior analysis with asking consumers, for example, through video surveys.

Reviewing behaviors doesn’t usually tell you the motivation behind the behavior. However, asking consumers about their reason behind an action can uncover additional insights.

“It’s important to get a rounded picture from all the sources,” Jenn added. “Using them together is powerful.”

Read next: How to understand Gen Z

How can brands implement being socially active and a transformative brand?

“Brands need to be very deliberate about it,” Gilad said. “History is awash with examples where brands have not gotten it right.”

Gilad offers two rules of thumb.

1. Mean it!

“Don’t be performative,” he said. “People can tell if you are doing it for the sake of doing it. The inauthenticity can alienate customers.”

Example: Patagonia

Highlight your social responsibility activities prominently. Take Patagonia. The clothing company dedicates a website section to its cause of doing something about climate change.

“That’s part of their whole being,” Gilad said. “If you are just doing a campaign, it may come off as opportunistic or insincere.”

In addition, try to have some action involved: What are you doing about it? How is your company being socially active?

"Talk about what you are doing. Not just what is wrong."

Example: Ben & Jerry’s

Ice cream company Ben & Jerry also discusses how they believe ice cream can change the world, including human rights/dignity, social/economic justice, and the environment.

brand activism by Ben & Jerry's

“Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s – they have a history of action,” said Jenn. “So when they do communicate something that they care about it is very authentic.”

Some brands might be cautious to start because of some of the negative examples they’ve seen. What happens if they appear performative but do they actually mean it?

That’s why action is so necessary. Say something but then also do something!

Example: Nike

Sometimes negative backlash doesn’t tell the whole story either. Think about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. It received a ton of negative press, but Nike’s share of voice skyrocketed, and so did sales. Some people complained. Some burned their Nike shoes in the streets. Others bought Nike products in response to the social stand.

After the George Floyd murder, Nike ran anti-racism ads that said “Don’t do it,” a play on its usual “Just do it.” In addition, Nike also discussed other steps related to the issue – like hiring for diversity, donations, and internal communications.

“It wasn’t just a marketing campaign,” Jenn said. “It’s got to be more than that.”

2. Do it right

“Even if your intentions are good, it’s important that you don’t offend anyone,” Gilad said. “And the only way to do that is by having a diverse team of people at the company making those decisions.”

Diverse teams can bring their viewpoints to collaborations. Teammates can then share their feedback and ideas based on their experiences.

Eva Tsai of Google shared this example of why diversity is so important to begin with:

Read next: Building teams that work to understand your customers better

“Don’t hurry just for the sake of doing it,” Gilad added. “Don’t just put up a statement on your website or a black square on your social media. Those things tend to be performative. I recommend stopping, sitting down, and thinking about what you want it to look like. What do you want maybe a year down the road to look like. And then start implementing those things.”

The importance of brand voice

Rachel Heseltine, vice president of consumer growth at Trader Interactive, stressed on “Reel Talk” the importance of having the right brand voice and tone for your brand and its affiliate brands.

“Everyone who is out there on social and talking as part of your brand should be doing so in accordance with that brand and voice,” she said. “Sometimes we see a brand trying to be clever and it doesn’t work. They didn’t read the audience and didn’t know what is going to resonate with folks.”

The same holds true when a brand decides to chime in on an emotionally-charged topic. The tone and the words we use all matter and they also have to align with the typical brand voice and style while keeping the current situation in mind.

Also, don’t tie sales directly into unrelated events, Rachel said.

“9/11 is a solemn day; it’s a day of remembrance,” she said. “It’s not a day for you to sell your handbags. Not a day for you to go out there and do a 25 percent off Patriot’s Day Sale.”

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